British horror since the 50s has generally bordered on the anemic with multiple filmmakers dominating the horror genre, churning out movies that some critics argued were innovative, but ones which for many didn’t do what horror ideally should. These films would often be devoid of any cheap jump scares, and rather focused more on building intricate set designs in order to establish a lived-in environment. Out of many such films, the most obvious parallel that I drew while watching Hulu’s latest British horror flick, “Matriarch (2022)”, was Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult film, “The Wicker Man“. The two not only share the same runtime, but the latter also draws some key inspirations from Hardy’s classic.
The movie – which comes along with a bunch of other Halloween releases on the streaming service – opens with a naked man descending into a pond of black muck. A few years later, we are introduced to Laura (Jemima Rooper) – a young woman living in a metropolis who seems to have a stable job. But despite the success, she is staggeringly lonely in her personal life. We see her abruptly break into teaching random strangers around the street about parenting, and she also happens to be a cocaine addict and horribly self-destructive.
She calls her girlfriend over in order to get drunk and later finds herself alone again, driving herself deeper into destructive tendencies. One morning, her body gives up due to an overdose, and Laura faints and falls on the bathroom floor. In one of the most impactful moments in the film, we see hallucinatory visions as Laura senses her calling through a black liquid flowing toward her, and eventually into her mouth.
Despite not having seen her mother in decades, Laura accepts an invitation she gets right after that morning to come home. Strangely, her estranged mother (Kate Dickie) who decides to call on this peculiar occasion, sounds weird and we’re hinted there might be some more history between the mother and daughter. The movie gives us little hints and clues in its second act, never losing us into its meandering pace, yet never really gripping us with high stakes either. What you take away from the film as a viewer strictly depends on what you bring to it, and what your history with the challenging sub-genre of body horror has been so far. You sense from the way Laura talks with her mother that she’s had a troubled past.
Earlier in the movie, we see Laura erupt at her boss for a minor inconvenience by getting personal about her daughter’s death. After returning to the secluded English village, Laura hopes she can finally calm the demons raging inside of her, or at least come to peace with her mother. She notices how Celia has aged so little, like most others in the village. Why does her mother call her back? What does it have to do with her overdose, where she almost died and supposedly came back?
Good horror films revolving around themes of cult carry the potential of posing salient questions about tradition and culture. They aren’t just an excuse to show creepy imagery with a bit of orgy thrown in between but question the very nature of religious zealotry. Director Ben Steiner, who also wrote the film, seems to understand this. But unfortunately, that only comes across on a superficial level. For instance, there are some stunningly creepy shots in the film’s first half that pose an ominous presence that’s internal to the protagonist herself.
While in the latter half, once the hints of a cult in the process build towards something more concrete, we’re shown just enough to make the atmosphere unsettling. But there’s always a lack of digging deeper into the dynamics of the relationship the female characters share with each other, disallowing us any further understanding of people’s own undeniable nature – something that the script had great potential to delve into.
The 85-minute runtime of “Matriarch” makes for an engrossing yet superficial cult film. A couple of crucial scenes between characters are handled so sloppily that the film’s transition into its final act of revelations never really takes off. After creating a triple goddess archetype of sorts, the movie abandons its rich underlying theme of what responsibilities and downsides carrying onto your own lineage can bring into life.